There’s this Pakistani restaurant owned by these cousins and brothers of Pakistani Peacekeepers in Dili. Their relatives lured them here with gold-rush stories, and they seemed, from their story, to not know what to expect from East Timor. Cash in hand to start their business, they soon began operating out of a white-tiled, glassed in commercial property facing the Municipal stadium. Aside from the upkeep of the restaurant “Taj Mahal” these guys spend literally nothing.
Their bedroom, which I discovered on a trip to the “toilet” (loosely defined), consists of three oddly sized, dirty mattresses crammed in a corner, and an assortment of clothes hanging on the wall. On the outside wall of their bedroom/living room/toilet corridor the kitchen peaks through a half-meter square whole in the wall. Three of them run the place, serving up Dal and Paneer and curries and Chicken tikka cooked over a wood fire in front of the restaurant.
They make most of their money, we suspect, on VB and chapati. Not a bad combination, in fact one that keeps our stomachs going on days when lunch was skimpy and breakfast was just sugary coffee. One can only assume, even with their $1.50 dals and curries, that these guys are making a tidy profit. They make the traditionally spinach dishes with strange East Timorese greens. The dal is a strange light-colored lentil dish, and the chutneys made from local mint or black pepper
Always polite and with excellent service, the Pakistanis are normally clean shaven, with clean clothes and a hint of body odor. They make the job seem effortless, and food arrives quickly and precisely. These guys are like the peacekeepers of world cuisine – poised to set up shop with military precision wherever malnutrition or culinary unrest may menace ex-pat populations.
The Lonely Planet guide can only hope that Taj Mahal stays around long after the Pakistani peace keepers pack up. It is the only non-Malaysian or Thai curry in town, and a great vegetarian meal in a buffalo and chicken-obsessed nation.
Timor, it seems, after its flash across world TV screens in 1999, came to occupies a bizarre place in the imagination of desperate and entrepreneurial people across Asia. There is a way in which both types — often contained in the same immigrant — look for an obscure, end-of-the-earth environment. It is a pioneer, frontier mentality here. Bring everything in on the wagon, set up of shop and sell what makes money.
In East Timor, you can be assured, if you are from a weak or non-functioning nation-state, you will not find many of your countrymen here with the U.N. In other words, you will be the “one and only” and are probably taken with dreams of an uncomplicated, clean-slate lifestyle. If you are from a functioning, U.N. member state, (like Pakistan) you might find enough of your countrymen here to make money selling them food and trinckets from their homeland.
East Timor is home to other strange migrants, like a handful of Philippine workers who were promised jobs here and unceremoniously dumped at the port with nowhere to live or to work. Without money to get home, and limited English, they were forced to get jobs in the restaurants and hotels here.
A Palestinian woman (better put “the Palestinian woman”) invested quite a bit of money in an hostel/bar just outside of Dili called “Mama’s place.” She came here out of a strange sort of solidarity, with the desire to help rebuild another unfortunate country annexed and brutalized by a powerful neighbor. She is doubtful how long she will stay on, but will leave behind a military-style hostel and great backpacker facilities.
Burma is also represented in this crew of odd asylum seekers to East Timor. One hotel, which serves Burmese curries, spring rolls and noodles, was started up by a Burmese entrepreneur and a couple of countrymen. After having built it up, recently he sold it back to an East Timorese owner, who has kept the Burmese menu and flavors.
The ex-patriate businessmen who have started to pack it up and leave, however, are mostly Australians. The “Stop and Shop” grocery has been shut for over a month, making people wonder if they’re staying. The Dili café, serving excellent tucker behind the UN palace, left with not even a Dear John letter, as did Bob’s, an Australian pizza and french fries joint. There is a certain impermanence to operations of hotels and restaurants here. After tiling the floor and buying the basic utensils and furniture, little is done in the way of decoration or improvement.
In early September, a political crisis floated towards Australia — a boat full of Afghani immigrants, starving and diseased, in international waters closest to Australian ports. Given the other strange asylum-seekers and immigrants to East Timor during its international administration, dumping them in East Timor seemed to some, oddly appropriate. José Ramos-Horta, Timor’s defacto foreign minister, gracefully offered to take the Afghani immigrants, for a large sum of resettlement aid. Australia, it seems, was quite embarrassed at the suggestion that it would just dump them in recent-razed-to-the-ground East Timor where poverty levels rival those of sub-saharan Africa . Even among its own political class, East Timor has become to be perceived as a refuge, a longer-than-temporary home for wayward people.
After the World Trade Center attack, and the growing anti-American agitation in Indonesia, East Timor is feeling more and more like an Asian sanctuary for Americans and other white foreigners. Extremists have entered hotels in Solo asking for lists of American guest. Apparently anti-american protestors surround the airport in Jakarta everyday. No such reaction from the East Timorese, who by all rights, have reason to be angry with foreigners living in their country and leaching off of the aid and development industries.